Mary told the cake to be cut by John.

A textbook says that this example is ungrammatical, but it seems to make sense to me: where does the sentence have its fault?

  • 1
    A good question! It might help to note that although "Mary told John to cut the cake" and "Mary told the cake to be cut by John" are non-equivalent (and the latter is semantically bizarre), there are some verbs that do allow this: "Mary expected John to cut the cake" and "Mary expected the cake to be cut by John" are roughly equivalent. (In technical terms, tell is a "control verb" whereas expect is a "raising verb".)
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:43
  • 3
    What textbook said it's ungrammatical? (Apparently it didn't say why?)
    – LarsH
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 1:08

6 Answers 6


This is a grammatical sentence, but it would be very unusual for anyone to say it because Mary is telling the cake, an inanimate object, to do something (have John cut it). It would make more sense to say:

Mary told John to cut the cake.

The main difference is to whom or what Mary is speaking. In the example in the question, she is speaking to the cake. In the example in this answer, she is speaking to John.

  • 7
    @FumbleFingers I don't think a command or request given in the passive voice is ungrammatical, but I do think it is bad style. Although the cake can't follow instructions, it is possible (albeit absurd) to talk to a cake.
    – ctype.h
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:50
  • 56
    Oh cake, thou cake! Prepare thyself, for John approaches with his mighty blade to cut thee. Allow thyself the blade to slice. And thou art cut, oh cake, in twain.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:51
  • 5
    @FumbleFingers: I agree with you. It would be grammatical to say "Mary told the cake to allow itself to be cut by John", and Mary could tell the cake to cut John. But I'm not sure she could tell the cake TO BE cut.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:54
  • 6
    If the cake were told to "have John cut it" it would be grammatical; but it's not told to act, it's told to be acted upon, and that's not grammatical. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:09
  • 34
    The cake asked, "Mary, by whom should I be cut?" and Mary told the cake to be cut by John.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 2:05

"Mary told the cake to be cut by John" is, IMHO, not ungrammatical but simply nonsensical. We don't tell cakes to be cut by anyone; we tell people to cut cakes. That's a semantic restriction and a usage problem: it's not idiomatic English.

Consider this one:

If you're gonna work for the Mob, you're gonna end up dead sooner than later. If yuh die young, it's prob'ly 'cause someone's gonna shoot yuh. The least you can do for your poor old mom is to be murdered by someone who has oodles of money. Then I can sue for wrongful death in civil court and win millions, just like the plaintiffs in the O. J. Simpson case did.

Same grammatical structure but different lexemes. Clear meaning. Grammatical. Semantically sound.

Rudolf Carnap created the sentence "Pirots carulize elatically", which contains no English words but, like Chomsky's "colorless green ideas" sentence, is perfectly grammatical and semantically nonsensical.

Is there a real and consistent connection between grammar and semantics? What is it? Is saying "I poured a yak into my cup and drank it" ungrammatical because it's not possible to pour a yak into a cup or to drink a yak? Or is this merely an example of nonsense (violation of semantic restrictions) in a real-world (vs. a fantasy-world or contrived) context?

When we deal with semantic restrictions on lexical items (words), are we concomitantly dealing with grammatical restrictions? I don't think so. If a sentence has a clear and discernible meaning but violates a syntactic rule, then there's a grammar problem; if it has no clear and discernible meaning but violates no syntactic rule, there's a semantic problem; if it has no clear and discernible meaning and it violates a syntactic rule, then there are semantic and grammar problems.

We can see that the syntax of "Man bites dog" and "Dog bites man" are exactly the same, NP-V-NP, but the semantics are different. Both sentences are meaningful and grammatical. Using the same syntactic structure but different lexemes, however, "Man drinks beer" and "Beer drinks man" is quite a different story. The first is both grammatically correct and semantically meaningful, but the second is grammatically correct and semantically nonsensical.

What have grammar and semantics to do with each other in this case? Nothing. The second sentence violates a semantic restriction: Beer is a liquid; it is drunk but cannot drink. Therefore, "Beer drinks man" is impossible in real-world English; it is not ungrammatical, however, because it violates no grammar rules, only semantic rules.

Usage isn't grammar and it's not necessarily semantics: it's a set of commonly expressed and commonly understood linguistic formulae (idioms, whether they're common and simple, like "Hello" or "The line's {busy / engaged}", or more complicated, like "He bought the farm" for "He died") in a particular linguistic community that ranges from very local (small social group) to international (virtually all native speakers of a language).

  • 3
    Great answer exhibiting differences among syntactical,semantic,grammatical aspects of a construction. This is the point every other answerers missed till now. If I could, I up-voted it +1000! :)
    – Mistu4u
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 6:05
  • A word, however, has both semantic and grammatical 'meaning'. A verb imposes syntactic constraints: ✲He said me to go is ungrammatical, not unmeaningful, ✲She told the cake to cut itself is unmeaningful, not ungrammatical, ✲She told the cake to be cut by John is both unmeaningful and ungrammatical. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 11:54
  • 8
    @StoneyB: I don't understand "grammatical meaning". *S1 violates grammatical restrictions [wrong verb form: must be said to (requiring told is word choice: semantics)]; *S2 violates semantic restrictions [nonsense: cakes don't hear or understand & can't cut themselves]; & *S3 violates semantic restrictions but is perfectly grammatical. Semantics is about word meanings; grammar is about word forms, not word meanings; syntax is about word order; & acceptability is about usage norms (idiomaticity) & trumps semantics, grammar, & syntax. I said all this (more or less) in my answer.
    – user264
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 12:51
  • 1)I was following the use which appears to have superseded that you and I grew up with: grammar embraces both morphology and syntax. I will here follow the old use. 2)We agree that He said me to go violates the syntactical constraint that the person commanded by the verb say must be cast as an indirect object through a prepositional phrase headed by to. It also violates the syntactical constraint that the action commanded must be expressed as either a subordinated finite clause (e.g. that he must go) or a direct quote. ... Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 23:06
  • 4
    @StoneyB: [REVISED COMMENT] Grammar does embrace morphology & syntax. The syntax error, however, is based on meaning, not on the grammatically required order of words in the S. It's a usage error, not a grammar error: not idiomatic. If semantic nonsense like "Colorless green ideas..." is grammatical, then so is semantic nonsense like "She told the cake to be cut by John", regardless of semantic/usage-based syntax error, otherwise we have a double standard. This isn't like quantum physics or inorganic chemistry: there are no inviolable laws in linguistics.
    – user264
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 23:53

REVISED 11/03/2014
Tell in its ordinary sense takes three arguments: a Subject (S) who tells, an (optional) Indirect Object (IO) to whom the telling is addressed, and a Direct Object (DO) which is what is told:

[S Mary] told [IO John] [DO a story].

This structure is maintained when tell is used in the sense command or instruct; the difference is that the DO is cast as an infinitive clause and signifies what action the IO is told to perform:

[S Mary] told [IO John] [DO to cut the cake].

  • (NOTE: Many grammarians would object to my calling this infinitive clause a DO; if you would rather call it an infinitival complement or something of that sort I won't mind. What you call it doesn't really affect the argument.)

But in this case John plays two roles: as 1) Indirect Object of Mary's action and 2) as the Subject of the infinitive clause. Moreover, the semantics of tell imposes two constraints on who may act in this dual role: it must be some entity which is capable of both 1a) receiving the command and 2a) performing it.

Your sentence violates both of these constraints: a cake is insensible, so it cannot receive a command, and inanimate, so it cannot perform a command.

Furthermore, your sentence casts the infinitive in the passive voice, and this will almost always violate constraint 2a; for the Subject of a passive construction is by definition not the Agent of the action, its performer, but its Patient, the entity upon which the action is performed. For example:

Mary told John to be beheaded.

It is (almost) inconceivable that John could perform his own beheading, or that Mary could issue the command "John, behead yourself". If Mary wishes John to be beheaded she must issue the command to some third party capable of performing the execution.

And if you want to express this action in the passive—for instance, if you don't know who actually performed the execution—you have to use some other verb than tell:

Mary ordered/commanded/decreed that the cake be cut by John.

A passive infinitive with tell is only acceptable in cases where the passive somehow retains a sense of Agency. Araucaria offers an interesting example:

He told me to be guided by my conscience.

In this case there is a 'hidden' term in that passive: what my mentor really demands of me is that I submit to the guidance of my conscience or that I choose to be guided by my conscience rather than by my interest.

  • 2
    Yes, this, exactly! If only I could +9000 ;).
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:59
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers As I said, because with tell the person told must be the Agent of the action, not merely the subject of the verb. A passive is impossible. "Mary told Fred to have himself shaved" or "to get himself shaved" are OK. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:00
  • 1
    @StoneyB Can you give a source for the rules you are invoking? I'm interested to read more into this. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 12:52
  • 1
    @KenB I'll have to hunt for one; my 'authority' right now is just me! Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 12:58
  • 1
    This rule regarding passive voice is beginning to feel to me a bit like the rule regarding ending sentences with prepositions, where technically you aren't supposed to, but strict adherence to the rule (or adherence at all) seems to be waning ever more as time (and the language) progresses. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 13:03

Firstly, since the cake is inanimate, Mary can't tell it anything. Secondly, even if we change it to, say,

1: Mary told John to be seen by a dentist.

...it still wouldn't be acceptable to many native speakers. If we look at an inarguably valid form:

2: Mary told Bill to be quiet.

...we can derive...

2a: What did Mary say to Bill? She said "Be quiet!".

...but when we try that with...

1a: What did Mary say to John? She said "Be seen by a dentist!".

...which is most emphatically not grammatically valid in current English. A long time ago, Mary could have said "Be gone!". But that construction hasn't been valid within my lifetime, except when used facetiously.

As other answers and comments indicate, all native speakers agree that if we accept OP's construction as grammatical, it must mean Mary told the cake what to do (which I dismissed as semantically absurd).

But there's obviously disagreement among native speakers as to the "grammaticality" of my alternative example #1. Some (including myself) aren't comfortable with "X told Y to be acted upon by Z" because we think Y can only be told to do something (even if it's a relatively "passive" action, such as allowing Z to perform the primary act). Others see no such constraint.

In this context it's important to remember that "grammar" isn't a pre-existing objectively-defined set of rules setting out what people can and can't say. That's just how it's usually presented to learners, but in reality it's a set of (more- or less-well observed) principles derived from what people actually say.

At the level of my example #1, therefore, it's meaningless to debate whether the form is objectively "grammatical" or not. To some native speakers, it's acceptable; to others, it's not.

  • 2
    I agree generally, but why does it suddenly become valid when we introduce a negation? "Mary told John not to be seen by a dentist" is obviously correct for example.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 1:28
  • 1
    @Matt Because it's a semantic constraint rather than a grammatical one.
    – user230
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 1:35
  • 6
    Perhaps I'm missing something, but to this native speaker, "Mary told John to be seen by a dentist" is absolutely fine. It might be more common to say, "Mary told John to see a dentist", but I'd suggest that both are acceptable. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 11:35
  • 1
    @Steve Melnikoff: It's a fine point, and in the end I don't think there can meaningfully be a "right" and "wrong" on this point. Some native speakers obviously have deep misgivings about the acceptability of telling someone to be [passively acted upon by someone else]. None of us feel it's acceptable to "tell" an inanimate cake to be thus acted upon. To some of us, that's because cakes can't take instructions in the first place; to others, it's because nothing and nobody can be thus instructed (they have to at least "actively" submit to being acted upon). Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 14:09
  • 2
    @snailplane: In practical terms, grammaticality and acceptability are synonymous in contexts where all (or the vast majority) of native speakers agree. I'm just making the point because it's obvious some answerers/commenters are making appeals to a non-existent "objective" grammar to justify the fact that they find certain constructions acceptable which others don't. But this is an area where learners need to be careful they're not wasting time and effort trying to identify and commit to memory ill-defined principles that probably won't help much in other contexts. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 18:16

This sentence is grammatical. It is also nonsense. It means that Mary spoke to the cake, commanding it to have John cut it.

  • 3
    -1. I'm pretty sure it's NOT grammatical as well as nonsense. For example, saying "Mary told John to be cut by the murderer" is also wrong, and doesn't involve talking to cakes.
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:00
  • 5
    No, that is perfectly grammatical also, and also nonsense. Mary is now speaking to John telling him to be knifed by somebody.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:32
  • 2
    @Matt Have you never told anyone to be patient? ... to be still?
    – MetaEd
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:49
  • 3
    @Matt "Mary told John not to be fooled by fad diets."
    – user230
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 1:25
  • 2
    Not really. This is a difference between nonsense and incorrect grammar.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 21:49

@ctype.h's answer is correct: if the meaning is that Mary instructed John to cut the cake, then the phrase must be:

Mary told John to cut the cake.

However, if the meaning is that Mary informed someone that cutting cake is John's obligation (and nobody else's), it should be:

Mary said that the cake was to be cut by John.

  • Said, not told, because she's not actually requesting John to do it; Instead, she's informing someone about the "destiny" of the cake. See this answer for details;
  • that provides a link between the main phrase (Mary said) and the additional phrase;
  • was is used here because it's impossible to use to without it;
  • Note a special role of to be. It's a relict of an old form of be in the context of intention or obligation: This answer has more details.
  • 1
    You're joking! I don't like to "pull rank", but as a native speaker familiar with a fair number of dialectal variations, I have to say I don't think any native speakers would find your sentence acceptable. Can you point me to a "dictionary" that seems to endorse it? Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:51
  • 4
    It would still sound very strange, but I think the sentence could be called grammatical if changed to "Mary said that the cake was to be cut by John." In the last link you gave, your example is also missing the "was"; it should read "I gave orders that Jane Eyre {was to} be left in the red-room." The "was" is very important. Still, it's a very odd-sounding sentence.
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:55
  • 1
    @bytebuster, Oh! I get it. So the writer of the textbook want to say that ‘tell’ needs three arguments ‘who, to whom, what.’ So should have wanted to say ‘Mary told [the cake to be cut by John]’ has missed one argument for ‘to whom.’ But he missed also that ‘the cake’ can be a personified listener: On the contrary ‘say’ is a word needing two arguments (subject, object), there would be no argue on the issue. Thank you very much.
    – Listenever
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:56
  • 3
    Mary said that the cake to be cut by John is impossible. Cake must be cut or should be cut or, as @WendiKidd says, was to be cut are OK. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:59
  • 3
    @bytebuster Modals always take the bare infinitive. If you mean ✲"Mary said that the cake be cut by John", that would be a mandative subjunctive--but say isn't mandative, so that's unacceptable too. "Mary ordered that the cake be cut by John" is an acceptable mandative. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 0:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .